My 2nd First Step is a blog by LaRue Cook, a former senior editor for ESPN The Magazine. His posts chronicle his new life as a driver for Uber and lyft.

A Lesson from Leroy's Mother

A Lesson from Leroy's Mother

I had no expectations when I signed up to be an Uber driver in Knoxville, Tennessee. I’d just walked out on my corporate job up yonder at thirty years old, going through one of the crises that comes on when it’s time to take stock of where you’ve let life get. I didn’t have a wife or kids and hadn’t helped anyone but myself in longer than I care to admit. That was all back when I lived up yonder and owned a condo and spent on one dinner what my grandmother spends on one month’s worth of groceries. I’d gotten caught up in “first-world” problems, or “white boy” problems, or whatever politically incorrect qualifier you want to use to say that I’d quit appreciating my circumstances, started creating perceived chips on my shoulder to justify my own unhappiness with the above-average norm.

I’d lost touch with humanity, maybe even with reality, while I sat behind a desk in an office on a gated campus that requires a key card, a fitness center and a cafeteria that will grill you a steak on demand at my fingertips. And that’s the beauty of Uber, at least for me, that I can get to know folks again, folks I might not otherwise have collided with if I’d kept putting on a suit and clipping an ID badge to my waist, which was getting too big for my taste, what with all those sirloins on demand.

It’s the damnedest thing, this technology we’ve got. I see “Leroy” and “drive to pin” on one end, and Leroy sees my cheesy grin on the other. Modern day hitch-hiking, only you don’t get to size up the man thumbing a ride, much less know who all’s climbing in your car. Leroy had his mother with him, and Mother had a cane. She could hardly see over the dash.

“We’re headed to the credit union,” Leroy said from the backseat. “Then on to get something to eat, if that’s alright.” Leroy’s mother piped up: “I reckon this is the last time I’ll be gettin into town for a while. Surgery on Sunday. Doctor has to straighten out my intestines, found a blind loop of all things. Liquid diet startin soon, my last supper, I guess you’d say.”

I told Leroy’s mother that I sure hoped the surgery righted the pain.

“I’ve worked awful hard most of my life,” she said, “and it’s caught up to me.”

“Heavy liftin,” I said.

“Oldest of five—helpin Momma carry the little ones, movin furniture outside to sun. We’d help Granddaddy harvest tobacco and sack his potatoes—fifty-pound bags.”

“Tobacco farmin ain’t easy.”

“No, it ain’t, slingin them stalks up in the barn to cure. My hands would be black as coal when we’d tie it off into bundles.”

“Makes your lungs look the same,” I said and let out a nervous laugh, like you do when the truth of what you’ve said hits too hard.

“I’ve been smokin since I’s seventeen.”

“Hard to keep from it back then,” I said. 

“You’d get a high from just walkin in the barn. It’d be December fore the leaves were dry—smelled awful good, though, like Christmas money.” She craned her neck and grinned.

Leroy’s mother wore thick glasses and so did Leroy. In fact, Leroy may as well have been his mother—dark-headed, eyes as round as an owl’s, with about as much of a neck, only Leroy didn’t have a hump in his back. I figured Leroy’s mother suffered from osteoporosis, like my grandmother, not enough calcium in their bones, common in women of their generation. My grandmother didn’t harvest tobacco, though. Her back-breaking was done in the sewing room of a hosiery mill, back when women didn’t leave the house without ’em.

We arrived at the local credit union, and Leroy asked if I’d pull up far enough so he could use the drive thru, the one where you stick your deposit in a capsule and it’s shot through a pipe over to the cashier at the window. I could tell Leroy was a tad younger than me, and I wondered if his attachment to his mother hadn’t held behind the times, considering every dollar I had or owed lived inside three pieces of plastic. I hadn’t given anyone money on paper since I’d paid my landlord in college, circa 2007.

“Sure do make cars boxy these days,” Leroy’s mother said of my Honda Civic. “They don’t make ’em like Chevelles anymore. My husband’s been dead eleven years—we used to love antique car shows, before Leroy came along.”

I told her that my father had me late in life, and that he always preferred a Buick or a Pontiac. “Smart—American-made,” she said.

My phone pinged. Leroy had entered the second destination: Austin’s Steakhouse and Homestyle Buffet. Leroy must’ve felt left out of the conversation, because he started going on about some new navigation app that alerts you to where police are sitting and traffic jams, rerouting you in real time. Leroy said that users could even put in suggested routes, letting folks know which way they think is faster, how to miss a stop light or two. Leroy’s mother and I listened, but we didn’t have much to offer, although I was a bit confused about Leroy’s interest in routes when he was the one calling me for a ride.

As we rolled in to the parking lot, I told Leroy’s mother that I’d be thinking of her. “Lord willin, I’ll be in my flower garden by July,” she said. I couldn’t help but glance at her cane and remember how she’d barely made it down her front steps. I nodded anyhow.

“You have a good one, sweetheart,” she said. 

I idled at the front door and considered how genuine Leroy’s mother had been, how in a former life that would’ve pained me, for happiness to come so easy at the site of an all-you-can eat steakhouse. Nowadays, I figure “sweetheart” from Leroy’s mother ought to be enough to get me to tomorrow.

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